A: This question is loaded and we always have to ask, what is your end use/main purpose?
The answer comes down to what you see your main use being for this optic. The scope you buy should match closely how you perceive the use of your rifle. For instance, a tactical rifle used for REAL, in a combat or police environment, is not the same scope one would use for long range target shooting. Civilians often think they are one and the same, but they are not. Sniping is Hunting. Not punching paper. To help you out, I’ve prepared a primer of optics based on how you think you might use your rifle.
Hunting Use: Anything between 1-5x and 4.5-14x is plenty. You need FIELD OF VIEW more than you need extreme magnification. It’s pretty much that simple. The guy who buys a massive scope to go shoot an elk is setting himself up for failure because it is a universal constant that the scope will be dialed in to 25x when the beast walks out of the bush 80 yards away. And if it walks out at 350 yards, no worries, dial up to 5x or 14x and you are good to go. Beyond that? Let’s be honest here. How many normal hunters even practice at 300 yards, let alone 700? And even if you do, you still do not need more than 14x to make that shot. 10x will do it while leaving you plenty of field of view to see where your bullet went when you missed, you un-practicing-I-only-shoot-one-box-of-ammo-a-year hunter! At any rate, for hunting applications ONLY, there is little need for big magnification and every need for field of view. This is why real sniper scopes are smaller than the public generally thinks. Do not use Hollywood as the example.
Tactical Use: If you are a tactical shooter, frankly, you can ignore the Hollywood version of sniper scopes, which are always too big, too heavy and have WAY too much magnification. Remember, until the 1980s, most sniper scopes were VERY successful in magnification ranges from 3x to 10x. In fact, a maximum of 10x is really all that is needed for the PURELY tactical environment with a .308 rifle. Why? Sniping is HUNTING. It is NOT Benchrest Competition. You may have to hump that bullet launching boat anchor around rough terrain for 36 hours and even after 5 hours, a big scope just makes a rifle feel like a small cumbersome child. By 7 hours you start looking for a coolly to carry that beast and by 12 hours you just want to toss it in the nearest creek and pretend you are a good old 11 Bravo.
You need a wide field of view as targets MOVE. Life is Motion. Never forget this. You need excellent resolution and a crisp image, CLARITY, all the way to the edge of the glass. You need a magnification that will allow you to make the shot in the worst mirage your area of operation has to offer. That may mean dialing down to a magnification that gets that broiling, bubbling blur of an image to settle into a shoot-able target. Making shots at 800 to 1000 yards at 10x is not that hard on stationary targets in most atmospheric conditions. (See our primer on Magnification below) People tend to over-scope in the belief that Big Magnification is best. However, it is often a hindrance. We recommend either 3.5-10×40 or 4.5-14×50 scopes for purely tactical operations. Law enforcement sniping is done at close range, so being able to dial to 5x or 6x is critical as an 80 yard target may sneeze its way out of your field of view at high magnifications — Just as you are about to squeeze off a shot. For Military operations the same applies. A center mass hit at 900 meters is, after all, a center mass hit. This can be done at any magnification from 6x to 14x, so why encumber yourself with a massive 42x telescope that will only get on your nerves and in your way?
In addition, the scope is not a SPOTTING SCOPE. Many people try to turn it into one, using scopes in the 25x range to glass FOR targets at long range. BAD FORM Bucko. So, imagine yourself in a hide, glassing that target at 25x when, without warning, that big brown bear, or communist insurgent, or a rabid environmentalist walks out of the brush 40 yards ahead of you with intent to kill. Even if you manage to see him, when you swing the rifle into play, whoops! Where’d he go?? Your field of view is now INCHES. Keep your scope dialed down to 10x or LESS until you NEED to dial up and use binoculars or spotting scopes for actual glassing.
Tactical/Sporting Use. For dual usage, such as hunting and occasional civilian or LE based sniper competitions (by that I mean REAL sniper competitions – see below), you want a scope that offers a wide range of magnification that allows for close range hunting and long range target shooting. You want it in a reasonably sized package that has no resemblance to a boat anchor. The word here is Compromise. Too big and you can’t hunt with it or carry it. Too small, and you are giving up resolving small targets at longer ranges. We recommend scopes in the 4.5-14×50 range, with 6.5-20×50 being the high end of what is acceptable. Again, a 3-10x scope will do it all, but many civilians want more magnification because they like to shoot smaller targets. Think Egg Shoots, at 500 yards. I can do it at 10x easily. But 15x or 20x, if mirage allows for it, can be icing on the cake. The 4.5-14x range of scopes will allow one to see well at most normal ranges while still preserving the critical field of view needed for tactical use and real tactical competition. This range makes the perfect compromise scope for the civilian and LE precision shooter looking for a dual purpose optic he can hunt deer with in tight woods, shoot inch sized targets at 500 yards, and man sized silhouettes at 1000 yards. If you can hit a 10 inch pie plate with a .308 at 1000 yards at 10x, you can DEFINITELY hit it at 14x. So really, WHY where you looking at that 42x scope for your deer/target rifle that you use once a year for target competition?
A final thought on the dual use Tactical riflescope. When you read “sniper” competition, keep in mind there are REAL sniper competitions and FAKE sniper competitions. An egg shoot is NOT a real sniper competition, no matter how many are listed that way. Nor is a hog target shoot or a really long range bulls eye shoot. These are a bunch of people, plinking at small targets for entertainment and fun. Nothing wrong with that. But their scopes fit the NEXT CATEGORY perfectly, and have no place in the dual use selection meant for real sniper competitions. Real sniper, tactical and LE competitions require that the competitors MOVE and shoot and CRAWL and get filthy and wet and muddy and suffer pain, and every damn extra ounce you carry becomes a massive dead weight. So keep your dual use scope reasonably sized and don’t get carried away. Just because that 260 pounder couch potatoe on some Bulletin Board told you he shoots eggs at 500 yards with his 32x scope, don’t for a second think that his arm-length-boat-anchor is appropriate for a 900 yard stalk on your belly in tall grass/mudd in that 102 degree August heat. If you have any hopes of doing REAL sniper schools and competitions, get massive scopes right the hell out of your mind right now. They can work, but they are NOT ideal. Big is Not SEXY, no matter what you might see in the next Hollywood sniper movie. Hoolywood loves showing a massive beast of a scope with blinking lights. Its theater. It has too look good on camera. But the first time your match director tells you that you have to crawl 300 yards throgh fox crap and tall grass, that stupid large 56mm objective you have is suddenly going to piss you off.
Target/Competition Use. Here is where the big scopes can serve a real purpose. If all you are shooting is Paper or Steel, big magnification can finally be a useful tool. None of these sports involve hunting and few involve moving targets. Fewer still of these sports require you to carry your rifle more than the distance of your truck to your bench. Some do, and bully for them! But most do not and those that do only involve 800 or so yards of movement and always in the upright position. So weight is not as critical.
Shooting a coke can at 980 yards is a blast! And here is where the big glass excels (to a point). F-Class competitors for instance, compete at ranges from 800 to 1000 yards and win or lose by small margins in group size. You do not NEED 25x to do this. Not at all. BUT when MIRAGE ALLOWS IT, 20x to 25x will allow you to make minor adjustments on target without touching your windage or elevation turret, meaning if you want to nudge the next shot a tiny amount one way or the other to keep the next shot in the group, you can see fairly well how far you moved. It means if your buddy just bet you $50 (oh, the foolish fool) that you could not shoot that fly off the 300 yard paster, well, too bad for him!
For the Competition and Target shooting endeavors, we recommend 6.5-20x to 8.5-x25x scopes or any number in these ranges. These can still be used at closer ranges if the shooter is SMART enough to leave the scope dialed down to low magnification when moving or scanning for targets with his binos, and they can then be dialed up to literally hold center mass on Coke can sized objects at 1000 yards. They don’t really have a place in the tactical environment unless mounted on the big .338 Lapua or .50 caliber based rifles — but civilians still insist on mounting them on rifles they will never shoot over 500 yards. Hell, I personally have an 8.5-25x50x Mk4 on my own .308 sniper rifle and I love it for most competitions and all range sessions. These larger scopes are excellent for varmint shooting, long range target competitions, and some tactical shoots where most targets are OVER 300 yards. I love the 8.5-25×50 for this kind of shooting. I can dial it down to 10x for testing handloads at 100 yards, and crank it up to whatever I need for longer ranges. I’ve even used it in pure sniper competitions to good effect, although I did pay a weight penality…which at 25 years of age is ok, but at 50, not so much!
Be aware however that as you go up in magnification, the more critical your technique becomes. Example; I can shoot a HALF INCH GROUP with IRON SIGHTS on my 700SS 5R Milspec, at 200 yards, using a micrometer peep sight. But at 25x with the very same rifle and load, my group may TRIPLE in size because I can see every little movement and PULSE. 25x literally magnifies EVERYTHING. Not just the target: You SEE your heart beat. You SEE your breath control or lack of it. You see your belly grumble that it’s time for lunch. And it all manifests in a bobbing cross hair. Especially at close ranges.
So if you forget good technique, you will likely start chasing your pulse as it makes the cross hair dive and rise. The average shooter is far better never dialing over 15x until he is shooting out beyond 400 yards. At least not until he develops good trigger and breath control techniques, not to mention bench techniques.
WARNING ON REALLY BIG GLASS: We maintain that anything over 25x is USELESS at long range due to mirage. These really big scopes (30X and above) are meant, primarily for Benchrest competition from 100 to 300 yards, where mirage is nowhere near the same issue as it is at 800 to 2000 yards. More on this in our magnification primer. While the scopes larger than 25x can be used at longer range, more often than not, they are a poor choice and one often made through ignorance.